Rhode Island Buys Righteousness with Bad Government


Some would say every season is one in which Rhode Island is beaten up by national rankings of states, but recent weeks have brought two more, and although the link between them might not be obvious, I’d say it’s undeniable.

On December 3, 24/7 Wall Street released its annual ranking of the best and worst run states in the country.  The brief analysis explaining why Rhode Island is the fourth-worst-run state mentions debt and the emigration of taxpayers, concluding:

Budget allocation in Rhode Island may not be efficient. While the state spends much more on government than is typical, at 5.4% of its annual budget, the government sector actually detracted 0.2 percentage points from the state’s 2014 GDP growth, a larger drag than in all but six other states.

Meanwhile, WalletHub recently found Rhode Island to be the absolutely least charitable state in the country.  Rhode Islanders donate one of the smallest percentages of income (according to tax returns, I gather) and say they donate among the least of their time.

Two observations from the WalletHub analysis point toward the link between these rankings.  First, Rhode Islanders are actually among the most likely to say that they’ve given money to charity.  Second, Republican states tend to be more charitable than Democrat states.

It bears mentioning that this is nothing new.  Here’s a 2007 post from Andrew noting Rhode Island’s historically poor performance in charitable giving.  Although I can’t find it, just now, or the response I remember writing, an opinion piece out of Massachusetts made the rounds some years ago taking umbrage at the suggestion that the people of Blue States tend to be less generous. The author declared that our charity is more commonly known as taxes.

Allow me to throw two more data points into the mix:  In his 2007 post, Andrew highlighted the fact that Rhode Island’s wealthy residents were particularly stingy, compared nationally.  Additionally, according to its annual reports, the total charitable gifts given to the Rhode Island Foundation were down 13% from 2012 to 2014, but donations to the non-profit’s more-political Civic Leadership Fund were up 78% in 2014, having been introduced in 2012.

Of course, the total gifts number is more than 100 times larger than the Leadership Fund donations, but it’s still noteworthy as one area of growing contributions for the foundation.  It’s also an area for which the foundation has arguably gained much more attention in recent years.

Part of the link between Rhode Island’s bad management and its stingy population is that the state has developed a culture in which people are inclined to think that they deserve to be given benefits from others, which is the opposite of feeling responsible for being a source of charity.  But more of it, I’d say, is that Rhode Islanders opt to buy righteousness via government rather than prove it through charity.

The high tax burden, apart from leaving Rhode Islanders less money to dispense on their own, makes us feel as if we’re already giving a lot of our earnings to other people.  At the same time, our rich, powerful, and well-connected neighbors prefer to gather their moral good feeling by supporting particular policies rather than providing actual resources. Yeah, we give generous benefits and spend a lot on education (although it’s never enough, naturally), but more importantly, people in our government make fashionably correct noises about issues that allow Northeastern liberals to feel good about themselves — from refugee policies to gun control to campaign finance reform to same-sex marriage to green energy.

If we were consciously using government as our means of processing charity, we’d be all the more outraged by corruption, mismanagement, and poor results, as on PARCC tests.  But when it comes right down to it, the influentsia of Rhode Island — from journalists to high-profile millionaires — cares more about our being a state that makes people feel righteous than one that runs well or succeeds in actually helping people.

Providence Mayor David Cicilline got a pass on his poor management and became Congressman David Cicilline because he proclaimed the correct pieties.  At this point, it is almost inconceivable that a gubernatorial candidate espousing conservatism on social issues — no matter how minor the actual topics or irrelevant the policies to state-level governance — would be widely endorsed by the influentsia even if he or she were the clear choice for a well-run government that would get results.

Many people, including government dependents, labor unions, investment professionals, and other special interests, benefit from the corruption that we can call “badly run.”  In the progressive alliance, they join with those who want to remake society using government, and together they market the sale of righteousness.

In contrast, conservatives who shrank the role of government and ran it well would not only leave us with more money to our own discretion, but they’d also force the rich to buy their good-self-feeling through other means, like charity.